The judge, of course, turns out to be Q, clad in 21st century robes of cardinal red that suggest the ecclesiastical garb of the medieval Church. (An historical fact: the birds we know as cardinals were named after the red vestments of Catholic cardinals, and not the other way around.)
After the judge’s dramatic entrance, meant to dazzle the impressionable common folk with the appearance of magic, a soldier tries to force the Enterprise bridge crew to stand by firing a machine gun at their feet. (Like all such ‘”techno-primitive” portraits of the future, modern technology appears along with aspects of a more primitive past.) But instead he inspires the ire of security officer Tasha Yar, who disarms him with a few kung fu moves, much to the delight of the crowd that evidently wants a show of primitive violence.
The Judge rules the downed soldier “out of order,” and he has time only to use his drug inhaler and smile before another soldier machine guns him to death. The crowd laughs and applauds. Yar is shocked.
The trial begins. The crew is to answer for the “multiple and grievous savageries of the species.” Data objects, stating that in 2036, the New United Nations declared that no citizen could be put on trial for crimes of their race or forbearers. But Q tells him this is a court of 2079, by which time “more rapid progress” (using Picard’s words against him again) had caused all such “United Earth nonsense to be abolished.” The objection is denied. So here we have the sense of a world that tried to come together in the 2030s, but ultimately fell into decades of war and chaos.
Tasha has another outburst, this time verbal, saying that there were courts like this on her world, that she was saved from it by Starfleet, and that the people here should “get down on their knees to what Star Fleet is…” It’s an interesting turn of phrase, as if the ideals of Starfleet should be worshipped. This doesn’t sit well with Q, who turns his instant-freeze effect on her, to the audible delight of the crowd.
“You barbarians!” Troi cries. As if this wasn’t already obvious. “You’ve got a lot to learn about humans,” Picard spits out, “ if you think you can torture us or frighten us into silence.”
Picard suggests that Q is having second thoughts about a fair trial, fearing he will lose. Q says this is “a merciful court” and unfreezes Yar, to the distinct displeasure of the crowd, this barbaric rabble of 21st century humans.
An interchange between Picard and Q reveals that by 2079, these courts had no lawyers (they were killed) and trials were based on the principle of “guilty until proven innocent.” This is further evidence of a deteriorated civilization, a dangerous step backward that we nevertheless have seen as policy in our own times (in Cambodia under the Kymer Rouge and other places, including Guantanamo Bay) and in practice, arguably here in America as well. Innocent until proven guilty is a barely comprehended principle and a very vulnerable practice, as many who have served on a jury will know. It is in many ways the acid test of civilization. So it is most appropriate that it is seen here as part of this moral as well as physical post-atomic horror.
Yet the rules of this court that Q uses aren’t his rules: they belong to the human world of 2079, as they once belong to the human world of past centuries. This rule of guilty until proven innocent is itself evidence in the indictment of humanity as “greviously savage,” the charge that Q now insists Picard answer.
Picard demands specific charges, and Q agrees to an “accounting of human ugliness.” A pad with the charges are handed to Picard, who reads them and hands them back. “I see no charges against us,” he says.
He’s going back to the principle Data stated, and in fact going back on defending humanity. Q in a rage further encouraged by the need for a dramatic moment before the commercial, tells his soldiers to fire on the crew if they answer with any word other than “guilty.”
So instead of getting a philosophical debate on the meaning of the human past, we get Picard pleading “guilty—provisionally.” Picard finally cries out that there is evidence to support the court’s contention that humans “have been savage. I say therefore, test us. Test whether this is presently true of humans.”
Q likes this idea (despite Picard’s misuse of the word “presently.” Although by the 24th century, the linguistic barbarians may have won the current contest to redefine the word that means “soon,” as meaning “currently.”)
Q accepts the idea that the crew will represent “what humanity has become,” and says that the current mission of the Enterprise will serve. “This Farpoint Station will be an excellent test.”
The crew finds itself back on the battle bridge, on course for Farpoint, as if they had never left and no time had elapsed.